Why is Israel Suddenly Backtracking on Annexation?

Published July 7th, 2020 - 07:39 GMT
(AFP File Photo)
(AFP File Photo)
Highlights
What Netanyahu had not banked on was the extent of international opposition that was hyped up against what he was about to do

July 1 came and went yet nothing on annexation. It was like the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu buried his head in the sand with nothing to say about the whole matter which is not at all like him and a far cry from his usual verbal bombast.

July 1 was to be his great day. He had been talking about it for a great number of months certainly at least the time when US President Donald Trump announced his “Deal of the Century” back in January 2020 - the magic plan for Middle East peace.

Netanyahu was looking forward to the 1st of July with great enthusiasm as he was to start the process of annexing 30 percent of Palestinian lands in the Occupied West Bank and the Jordan Valley to beef Israeli territory thanks to the American president, who through his nod and wink had given the go-ahead to the most right wing Prime Minister Israel had ever seen.

 

Although Trump contextualized the land grab on the condition that a Palestinian state - albeit a demilitarized one - would be set up - the carving up of geographical areas of 132 Jewish settlements and 124 settler outposts with over 500,000 people meant that ‘Palestine’ as an entity and a human concept would be forever divided and dissected with little cohesiveness and concordance.

In theory the plan was thus. Under a Trumpian blueprint Israel would increase its land size and territory by paying lip service to a weak Palestinian entity under a trademark century deal that was pernicious because it ignored most outstanding issues like refugees, water, borders and above all Jerusalem; which was practically handed over to Israel in a marked move away from traditional US foreign policy.  

The idea became that Mr Trump, known in the business world as the deal maker, would fix the Arab-Israeli conflict on a par excellence gold-platter, something that his compatriots were unable to do for at least two decades.

World opposition

What Netanyahu had not banked on was the extent of international opposition that was hyped up against what he was about to do: Annex land illegally and against international law. Initially, he thought it would be plain sailing. After all, and on the face of it, the Americans had practically given him a carte blanche, a do what you will. But first point; Netanyahu overlooked the fact that the current White House was fickle with its boss having a habit of chopping-and-changing, unable to make up his mind and playing politicians against one another, a bit like Henry Kissinger, the former US Secretary of State in the early 1970s.

Second point; Netanyahu didn’t foresee the extent of opposition that was coming from individual European countries. These states under the European Union had always called for a two-state solution to end the Palestinian/Arab-Israeli conflict. But their support was mainly material and a muted affair that was full of pomp and ceremony but lacked guts and action.

At first Netanyahu must have latched onto this and probably even discounted their opposition as a ‘verbal’ non-starter with lots of hot air. However, this was soon to change when he started to see the extent of opposition from the European Parliament when 1080 Lawmakers representing Austria, Denmark, Belgium, Greece, Hungry, Ireland, Italy, Germany France, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, Britain and more stated their unequivocal objections to annexation. It was a show of support ranging from individual politicians, ministers and prime ministers with the Vatican calling on the US and Israeli Ambassadors and giving them a rap on the knuckles.

Besides, there were those MPs in Belgium and Holland for instance, who were actively calling for sanctions to be applied by Europe on Israel, a hitherto country that up till now was seen as the only genuine democracy in the region, with the implication being these actions are not made by such states especially friends and allies.

European leaders also took to the Israeli media castigating the steps about to be taken by Netanyahu on annexation in the West Bank. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson took to Israel’s leading daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, to deliver his message against annexation in a front page article while EU Foreign Policy Chief Joseph Borrell wrote in the Jerusalem Post that annexation would grossly violate international law and disrupt the international system.

This was not only terrible news but a shock for Netanyahu not only because of the new tone of speak that was being used and uttered but also because he had never thought the actions he was about to embark on would degenerate into negative reactions where Israel was quickly being seen as a pariah by western governments who had always supported the Jewish state regardless of their feelings towards the Palestinians.

The situation was becoming dismal with the ‘house of cards’ as it were starting to crumble down rather than fall into place.

Domestic politics

This was because of Benny Gantz, the alternate Prime Minister in Israel’s coalition government. In an attempt to placate Palestinian, Arab and world opinion he has already said the July 1 was ‘not sacred’ for annexation and what was needed at this stage was consensus on the ‘Deal of the Century' which the Palestinians already rejected and as a consequence, threatened to rescind its peace accords with Israel if it unilaterally annexes from the West Bank territories.

As a coalition partner he also holds the Defense Military portfolio and with Gabi Ashkenazi, a member of his Blue and White Party who is Foreign Minister, they have also been able to quietly reign in the ambitions of Netanyahu because the Likud Prime Minister needs then to continue in government as well as the other ramifications coming in from the American side.

Trump and his team came to realize later how useful Gantz and his party can be. They wanted Gantz to influence Netanyahu and force him to make land concessions to the Palestinians especially on territories which Israel still controls in the West Bank and that way, their opposition to the Deal of the Century would cool off and it would be an easier sell.

Also for the Europeans, Gantz is an easier person to deal with because of his approach. For one thing it is felt he is not an ideologue like Netanyahu with a practical view of politics saying annexation can wait because Israel has more immediate issues to deal with like improving the dogged economy and the coronavirus which has ravaged Israeli society having over 20,000 cases that are Covid-19 positive.

So in many ways, individuals and parties continue to bank on him for stopping a person, who is seen as the most extreme right wing prime minister Israel has ever seen. Judging from his different stances Gantz will try his best but Netanyahu is an old fox with much experience in the political game. He has been dominating the Israeli political scene since the late 1990s and has been continuously in power as Prime Minister since 2009. Just because he passed his 1 July deadline it doesn’t mean he will not go back to annexation as there is no predictability in politics.

This is because of two main issues. He is already facing charges of corruption and abusing his public office and having court hearings. Therefore, he would likely use annexation as a trump card for when the time comes to lure extreme right wing support and hope it will come. This is one thing.

The other issue is the support by US president Donald Trump. It might yet materialize although Trump is facing problems of his own over police brutality and the November 2020 presidential elections. Besides what can Trump offer in addition to having laid his Deal of the Century and having practically already said it is up to the Israelis and Palestinians to sort it out by themselves.

So it appears the Israeli PM faces a conundrum. He still believes Trump has a role in delivering a peace that would be in the best image of Israel and its interests for after all it was Trump who moved the US Embassy to Jerusalem and recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

But he must also remember in all this. Trump does not appeal to the extremist right wing constituency that is Netanyahu’s base for they don’t like the American president as he is also offering a Palestinian state under his Deal.

Marwan Asmar is Managing Editor/News in Albawaba.com

 


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